Ideals and Values/Respecting our Gurus and Rishis

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Vishal Agarwal

These three are the main Gurus of a human being – mother, father and his teacher.[1]

Who is a Guru?

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The word ‘Guru’ itself means ‘remover of darkness and ignorance’. Our tradition gives much more importance to the personal instructions than to books. Our Holy Books, the Vedas, are called ‘Śruti’ or that which are heard from Bhagavān or from teacher. We do not believe that Bhagavān inscribed his commandments in writing for us and handed them over to us. Rather, inspired Sages and Saints heard His Voice within their hearts and then narrated it to others. The recitation of Vedas continues to this day, through an unbroken chain of teachers and students. Therefore, Bhagavān is called the first Guru of human beings in our traditions and all the traditional Guru-Disciple lineages are eventually traced all the way back to Him.

The respect that our tradition as well as the allied Sikh, Buddhist and Jain traditions asks us to give to our Guru is quite unknown in the western traditions where teachers are respected, but not to that extent. The reason for this is that the role of a Guru and a teacher are somewhat different. A Guru need not be just a spiritual teacher. Every teacher, whether of music, painting, science and so on is considered a Guru. Likewise, the scriptures state that one’s Guru need not be a human being alone. In the Bhāgavata Purāņa, the Avadhuuta Gitā enumerates 24 kinds of Gurus such as the ant and other creatures from whom humans can learn important lessons of life. Likewise, in the Chhāndogya Upaniṣad, Satyakāma Jabala gets instruction through observing the fire, a bull, a swan and so on.

Difference between a Guru and a Teacher:

A teacher typically imparts education for a payment. His teaching primarily makes us a scholar, or makes us fit to earn a decent living when we become adults. In contrast, a traditional Guru gives his education for free, and only to a few chosen students. A Guru’s instruction is much more personal than that of a teacher.

Importance of a Guru & Guru Dakṣinā

The word ‘Guru’ also means ‘weighty’ and perhaps this signifies his importance (‘weight’) in opening our eyes of knowledge and wisdom. We believe that through his example, personal insight, original thinking and experience, the Guru infuses the teaching or instruction with a life. The teaching or knowledge becomes alive only through the Guru and mere bookish knowledge is not as useful as a teacher’s instruction. In particular, in all schools of spirituality, the role of one’s Guru is considered indispensable to achieving the final goal, which is reaching Bhagavān. He is a role model for his students, the very embodiment of wisdom and knowledge. Our scriptures therefore emphasize that we should approach a teacher for acquiring knowledge instead of just picking up a book. Therefore, the Upanishads say:

Only knowledge received directly from the Guru does one learn that Truth that causes the highest good.[2]

The knowledge that one learns from a teacher helps one best to reach his goal.[3]

We (devatas) can give you the knowledge, but only your teacher can really show you the way.[4]

At the same time, it is indeed very difficult to find a true Guru. Read the story later in this chapter about how Sant Kabir found his Guru. Our scriptures describe the true Guru in the following words:

Who is a True Teacher?

They call those men Āchārya who are devoid of greed, who are self-possessed and devoid of arrogance, straight forward and who are educated and self-disciplined.[5]

"An Āchārya is one who fully understands the conclusions of the revealed scriptures. His own behavior reflects his deep realization, and thus he is a living example of divine precept. He is therefore known as a Āchārya, or one who teaches the meaning of the scriptures both by word and deed."[6]

The relationship between a Guru and his disciple is begun with a ceremony which likens the initiation of the student to be his rebirth in the womb of the Guru[7]. This is because whereas the parents give only a physical birth to the student, he is reborn in wisdom or spirituality only when he meets his Guru. Upon the completion of his studies, the student is required to give a ‘Guru Dakshina’ or a humble offering to his Guru, with his best possible ability. Later in this chapter, we will read how King Anandapal and Swami Dayanand Saraswati offered the Dakshinas to their respective Gurus.

Showing respect to the Gurus

We show the reverence for teachers in many ways:

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  1. By celebrating the festival of Vyāsa Pūrņimā, also called as Guru Pūrņimā.
  2. We do not address our Guru by his name. Students should never call their teacher by their first names. They should always be addressed by their title and their surname (e.g., Dr. Smith, Mr. Jones). Never yell at the Guru.
  3. By obeying them cheerfully and deferring to their wisdom and intelligence.
  4. In their day to day dealings with their teachers, students typically are expected to walk behind their teachers, sit behind them in the audience and speak in a voice softer than their teacher.
  5. While walking behind the Guru, if he sees a door ahead, the student is expected to run in front of his teacher and open the door for him.
  6. The student must not eat in the presence of his teacher; smoking and drinking alcohol is therefore out of question.
  7. The student does not sit while his teacher stands. If only one seat is available, the student offers it to his teacher.
  8. If the teacher enters the student’s room, the latter must rise to greet him.
  9. A picture of a lifelong teacher must be placed along with icons of gods in the student’s personal shrine in his home.

In fact, the scriptures state that without serving one’s Guru and showing him reverence, one cannot attain Mokṣa[8]. Let us see pictorially how you can show your respects to your teacher in the present times through the example of a good student and a bad student –

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Guru and Bhagavān

Due to the importance of Guru in our learning process, the scriptures ask students to worship one’s Guru as they worship Bhagavān Himself[9]. Later Bhakti saints such as Kabir consider Guru as superior to God himself, because it is the former who makes us get a glimpse of God. Scripture says

The guru must be considered to be like the Supreme Lord Himself, because he bestows the light of transcendental knowledge upon his disciples. Consequently, for one who maintains the material conception that the guru is an ordinary human being, everything is frustrated. His attempts to make progress in spiritual life - his Vedic studies and scriptural knowledge, his penances and austerities and his worship of the Deva - are all as useless as the bathing of an elephant who rolls in the mud after his bath.[10]

The Festival of Guru Pūrņimā: Veda Vyasa, The Greatest Guru after Bhagavān

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The full-moon night in the month of Ashaaḍh is celebrated as the birthday of Sage Veda Vyāsa. Therefore, this day is called Vyāsa Purnima, where the word Purnima means ‘full-moon night’. Since Veda Vyāsa was an exemplary teacher, his birthday is also celebrated as ‘Guru Purnima’ or the Teacher’s night and traditionally we honor their teachers this day every year.

All the major schools of Spirituality trace their tradition of teachers and students all the way back to Veda Vyāsa, who lived approximately 3500 years ago.[11] He is said to have compiled the four Vedas in a form close to that available today and then have taught them to his four students. Next, he also wrote the Mahabharata, and compiled the Purāṇas[12] He is also sometimes credited with the short work called ‘Vedānta Sūtras’ in which the teachings of the Upaniṣads are explained in a very logical and a systematic way. In this way, Veda Vyāsa was involved in giving shape to most of the important scriptures of Dharma. The following are the traditional verses that are chanted in the honor of this great Ṛṣi:

OM! Salutations to Veda Vyāsa, the descendent of Vasistha Muni and the sinless grandson of Śakti. Salutations to the son of Parashara, to the father of Śukadeva, To him who is an repository of spiritual austerities || Salutations to Vyāsa , an incarnation of Viṣṇu. Salutations to Viṣṇu in the form of Vyāsa! Salutations to him who is a repository of Brahman and the Vedic lore Repeated prostrations to the descendant of Sage Vasistha || Salutations to Vyāsa, who is Brahma without the four heads Who is Viṣṇu without the four arms, Who is Śiva without the third eye. Prostrations to Bhagavān Badarayana, the teacher of Vedanta || [Traditional verses in praise of Veda Vyāsa, loosely translated]

Stories about Gurus and their Students in our Tradition

Story: Mādhavadeva takes away the sin of his Guru Śankaradeva Kalindi, the wife of Sant Śankaradeva, always complained that all he cared about was his disciples and his social and spiritual activities. He had no time for his own family members. One day, Śankaradeva returned from his morning walk and sat outside his house with a forlorn look. Kalindi asked as to why he had not gone in to take his bath as he was accustomed to, after his walk. Śankaradeva responded that he had inadvertently committed a great sin that morning. While walking, he had gently pushed away a calf out of his way. But the creature unexpectedly collapsed and died. Therefore, he was tainted by bad karma and must perform an atonement.

Kalindi agreed and told him not to take a bath or even enter the house till he atoned for his sin. He must feed several devotees of Kṛṣṇa, take their blessings and only then come inside. Soon thereafter, Madhavadeva, the principal disciple of Śankaradeva arrived. When he saw his Guru sitting outside the house with a pained look on his face, he asked for the reason. Upon learning what had happened, he immediately requested his Guru to go in and take his bath and resume his activities, saying that, “On your behalf, I will take all your sin on me. I will perform all the atonements for you and will even go to hell in your place if I have to.” When Kalindi heard Madhavadeva’s words, she realized how much disciples of Śankaradeva loved him from their heart.

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Story: Āruņi’s Devotion towards his Guru Āruṇi was the son of Ṛṣi Aruni. As per the tradition of the time, though Rishi Aruni was learned, he sent his son to study with another learned Ṛṣi named Dhaumya. Āruṇi knew the secret of gaining the knowledge as he was the son of a Ṛṣi. He knew that service of the Guru is the key, as it trains our minds and makes them more receptive.

His teacher gave him a job of taking care of a small farm in the outskirts of the town. The farm was on a small hill. In the rainy season, Āruṇi noticed water flowing down the hill and his crop was not getting enough water. So he told his teacher and the teacher said, “Why don’t you build a dam so that water can be saved for the farm?” Āruṇi went to build a dam. He started pouring dirt to build the dam. Regardless of how much dirt he poured, it all went with the flow of water as the water current was swift. He tried and tried, but failed. He was tired but he needed to stop the flow of water as it was the command of his teacher!

He finally got a brilliant idea. He spread himself on the ground, lying across the place where the water was flowing. He could thus stop the flow of water. It was late evening and he was thirsty and hungry. But, how could he leave? He was the dam! He decided to stay there as the dam! His teacher noticed that Āruṇi was not back from the farm. So, he along with a few other students went to look for Āruṇi. To the teacher’s surprise, Āruṇi was lying down on the ground as the dam, to prevent water from flowing down!

Ṛṣi Dhaumya saw Āruṇi’s faith in the teacher and his words. Dhaumya was a man of wisdom and so he told Āruṇi that water will not flow down when he got up, because a dam had formed against his body as he lay on the ground for several hours. He blessed Āruṇi and told him that he would henceforth famous by the name Uddālaka.” Due to his devotion to his Guru, Āruṇi became a great Ṛṣi in his own right when he completed his education.

Story: How Sant Kabir met his Guru Kabir, who lived in the holy city of Varanasi, was a very spiritually oriented person in search of a true Guru. He heard that a great saint named Rāmānanda had arrived with his disciples. He wanted to become a disciple of Rāmānanda but was worried that he might not be accepted because Rāmānanda was a Hindu saint, whereas Kabir himself had been raised by Muslim parents.

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Rāmānanda used to go every morning to take a bath in the Ganga River. On the banks of Ganga in Varanasi, are famous stepped ‘ghats’. Pilgrims descend into the river by walking down the steps of these ghats. One day, when it was early morning and it was still somewhat dark, Kabir lay flat on one of these steps. Rāmānanda walked towards the river, and accidentally stepped on a leg of Kabir. He immediately uttered, “Rām, Rām,” in devotion towards Bhagavān and also to apologize to Kabir. Kabir was elated and he immediately jumped up, “I have met my Guru, and he has given me the mantra of ‘Rām Rām.’” Rāmānanda was greatly elated with the faith and sincerity of Kabir and accepted him as his disciple. In his later years, Kabir wrote numerous verses in praise of the true Guru. Some of these are translated below –

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The Guru as well as Govinda are both standing in front of me and I am in a fix as to whose feet I should bow to first. I decided to touch the feet of the Guru, because he was the one who showed me the path to Gobind. There are many in this world who wear the garb of a Sadhu and beg from home to home. But they are not true Gurus, and in the absence of a true Guru, one’s education remains incomplete. Therefore, says Kabir, even if you have to get your head cut to obtain a true Guru, consider it to be a good bargain!

Story: Anandapāla Shāhī’s Guru Dakṣina to his Guru Ugrabhuti Bhatta In the 9th and the 10th centuries CE, the regions today occupied by Muslim Pathans in NW Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan were Hindu territory ruled by Hindu Shahi dynasty with their capital moving between Kabul, Peshawar and other cities. King Anandapala Shahi ruled this kingdom from 1001 – 1010 CE. His Guru Ugrabhuti Bhatta was a renowned scholar of Sanskrit grammar who wrote a very detailed book on this subject. The neighboring Hindu kingdom of Kashmir[13] was also famous for its scholarship. Therefore, King Anandapala sent copies of his Guru’s work to the Kashmiri scholars in the hope of promoting it.

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But the Kashmiri Hindi scholars were very snobbish at that time and did not easily adopt books that were written by others. Ugrabhuti Bhatta was therefore disheartened but his student Anandapala came to his help. He announced that he will distribute 200,000 gold coins and many other gifts to Kashmiri scholars who would study the work of his Guru. The Kashmiri scholars fell for this gift, and as a result, Ugrabhuti’s work acquired great popularity in Kashmir.

This act of Ugrabhuti to promote the beautiful work of Guru had a lasting effect. Within two decades, his own kingdom was completely over-run by Mahmud Ghazni, the fanatical Muslim king of Ghazni. Mahmud eradicated Hindu Dharma from his kingdom to the best extent possible, destroying temples, slaughtering Brahmanas, burning Hindu scriptures and forcibly converting many Hindus to Islam. Hindu learning practically ceased to exist in Afghanistan and the NW parts of Pakistan. But it took at least 3 more centuries for Muslims to gain the political control of Kashmir. Even thereafter, Hindu learning in the Kashmir survived till the present times with which there also survived the beautiful Sanskrit grammar work of Ugrabhuti. Due to the magnanimity of Anandapala, his Guru’s work continued to be used as a textbook of Sanskrit grammar in some regions of northern India right down to the early 20th cent. CE.

Point of Discussion

Most of you will not grow up to become Kings and Queens. But when you start earning, there are many ways in which you can promote education in general and also support the work of your favorite teachers. Can you list some ways in which you can do that?

  1. _______________________________________________________________
  2. _______________________________________________________________
  3. ______________________________________________________________

Story: How Swami Dayānand Saraswati paid his Guru Dakṣina Around the year 1860, Swami Dayānand Sarasvati was on a search of a Guru who could teach him the intricacies of Sanskrit grammar. He carried with him manuscripts of the grammar book Sārasvata Kaumudi and other books which were very expensive and rare in those days. One day, he heard that the blind man Swami Virjānanda of Mathura was a great scholar of Sanskrit grammar. So one night, he knocked at the door of Swami Virjānand, who asked Swami Dayānand what books he had studied and what books he was carrying.

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Swami Dayānand Sarasvati responded, “I have studied the grammar in Sārasvata Kaumudi and some other books, and I am carrying their manuscripts. But I have still not been able to master the grammar of Sanskrit.” Swami Virjanand replied, “Then these books are of no use. Go and throw your manuscripts in the waters of the Yamuna river.” With batting an eyelid, Swami Dayānand Sarasvati went to the Yamuna river and threw away his manuscripts.

When he returned to Swami Virjānand, the latter said, “All books of grammar created by small minds in recent times are of little use. Instead, you should study grammar from the works of Panini and Patanjali written several thousand years ago. Only the works of great Ṛṣis and Munis like them can help you master the subject of Sanskrit grammar.” Swami Dayānand then spent a few years studying grammar under Swami Virjānand with the help of books of the Ṛṣis and mastered the subject. When it was time to depart from his Guru, he offered some cloves to Swami Virjānand, thinking that they will soothe the pain due to his stomach ulcers, as a parting gift. But Swami Virjānand said, “There was no need to give me a gift. But I need a promise from you – that you will devote your life to teach and popularize the works of great Ṛṣis and that you will spread the message of the Vedas to the common people even if you have to lose your life in this effort. You will never compromise with evil even not hesitate to criticize the superstitions in our society.”

Swami Dayānand agreed and spent the remaining years of his life spreading the message of the Vedas and popularizing other works of Ṛṣis all over north India. Several attempts were made on his life by evil people, but he never stepped back and always forgave those who had tried to kill him, and never went back on the promise that he had given to his Guru.

Can we disagree from our Teacher?

Respecting one’s Guru does not mean that you cannot differ from them even if they are wrong. In fact, in the Hindu scripture Taittiriya Upaniṣad, the Gurus address their students who are graduating and say to them, “Follow us only when we are correct. Do not copy us when we are wrong.”[14] In the Hindu tradition itself, we read about many students who disagreed with their teachers.

Story: Rāmānujāchārya Disagrees with his Guru In the 11th century, Rāmānujāchārya was studying Hindu scriptures under Yādavaprakāsha, a very famous scholar in the city of Kancheepuram which is close to the Chennai in India. Once, the teacher was explaining a phrase ‘kapyāsam pundarīkam’ occurring in the scripture Chhāndogya Upaniṣad while Rāmānuja was massaging his legs. The teacher explained the phrase in this manner, “The eyes of Bhagavān are red like the red buttocks of a monkey.” When Rāmānujāchārya heard this explanation, he was deeply hurt and tears fell from his eyes on the legs of his teacher. Yādavaprakāsha understood that his student did not like his explanation, and asked Rāmānuja to explain the same passage in Sanskrit. Rāmānuja said, “Respected Guru, the passage means that the eyes of Bhagavān are as beautiful as the red lotuses that come out of water at sunrise.”

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In the course of time, many other differences of understanding of Hindu scriptures arose between the Guru and his disciple. Envious of the knowledge of Rāmānuja, Yādavaprakāsha conspired with his other students to kill Rāmānuja by drowning him in a river. But one of the students turned out to be Rāmānuja’s cousin and divulged the plot to him. Rāmānuja slipped out of the school to save his life.

Hindu tradition records that after a few years, Yādavaprakāsha realized that his student Rāmānuja was indeed correct and was more knowledgeable than he was. So he approached Rāmānuja and apologized. And more than that, he requested Rāmānuja to now become his teacher. Rāmānuja consented and now his former teacher became his own disciple.

Another famous example of student – teacher pair in which both were brilliant but differed from each other is that of Bhatta Kumārila and his student Prabhākara Mishra (7th Cent. CE). Both were experts in the science of performing ritual ceremonies that are taught in the Vedic scriptures, but they had different interpretations of the same. Both wrote great works on Mimāmsā, a branch of Hindu philosophy which interprets the Vedic ritual, with differing viewpoints. Their works led to the foundation of two competing schools of Mimāmsā.

How do we deal with a teacher who is immoral?

Being respectful towards the teacher does not also mean that we turn a blind eye to his faults. We must always place truth and the law above respect for our teacher. We may remain obliged always to our Guru for having given us precious knowledge, but must balance it with our obedience towards truth and the law. The following story from the life of a Hindu saint from Pakistan illustrates this very well.

Story: Sant Wadhuram Khilnani testifies against his Guru in the court of law Sant Wadhuram Khilnani[15][16] lived in the town of Bhiria in the district of Nawabshah in Sindh.[17] He lived a very simple life, fed stray animals every day, and was extremely regular in visiting Mandirs and religious sermons by visiting Hindu saints. Wadhuram’s Guru was one Thakur Sahajram Somai. The Guru gave the following mantra to Wadhuram, “Speak the truth, always be firm on it and then you will realize the Divine.”

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Once, his Guru was involved in a dispute and the matters reached the court of law. To save his skin, Thakur Somai said to his disciple, “Wadhuram, you are renowned for your truthfulness. If you give testimony in my favor, just as I direct you, word for word, I will win the case.” Wadhuram knew that his Guru was at fault. But, Dharma also taught him to follow his Guru’s command without raising a question. However, Wadhuram’s loyalty to truth was greater than respect for his Guru. He replied, “Gurudev, I will say only that which is the truth, irrespective of the consequences.”

Thakur Somai was livid with anger and he said, “You have disobeyed your Guru. Henceforth, you cannot enter my home.” Wadhuram bowed humbly and left. But he got a niche constructed built near a well outside his Guru’s home. Thereafter, Wadhuram continued to light a lamp in that niche to honor his Guru in that way.

Cultivate a Questioning Attitude, not Blind Faith:

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Respecting one’s Guru does not mean that we accept whatever he says. No one knows everything, including your teacher. Therefore, if you have a doubt, ask your teacher. And if your questions are not answered satisfactorily, then do your own investigation.

Hindu Dharma teaches us to accept something only if it makes sense to us, and if it seems correct. A Sanskrit proverb says, “Do not accept a false statement even if it has been said by Brahmā.” Śankarāchārya[18] one of the greatest Hindu philosophers, had also said that even if hundreds of verses in the Vedas were to say that ‘fire is cold’, then we cannot accept it because by our own experience, fire is hot and burns us! In the Bhagavad Gitā, Krishna teaches the entire philosophy of Hindu Dharma to Arjuna. But at the end, He does not say, “It is My command that you must follow whatever I have said.” Instead, Krishna asked him whether his delusion of ignorance was destroyed by His answers to Arjuna’s questions. Below are two stories illustrating the Hindu value of questioning and open-mindedness.

Story: Swami Dayānand Saraswati Dissects a Corpse Swami Dayānand read elaborate descriptions of human anatomy[19] through some newer books of Hathayoga[20] like the Hathayogapradipika. However, the complicated descriptions of these books had really confused him. One day, as he was walking on the banks of the Ganga river in the town of Garhmukteshwar, he saw a corpse floating by.

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Swami Dayānand dragged the corpse out of the water. With a knife, he cut the abdomen to examine the heart. He also examined some areas in the neck and the head, and tried to compare them with the anatomical descriptions given in the works of Hathayoga. After sometime, the Swami concluded that the descriptions in these books did not match the actual structure of the human body. Therefore, Swami Dayānand concluded that these books were inaccurate and not reliable. Disappointed, he threw back these books and the corpse into the river. He came to the conclusion that only the Vedas and ancient works of Rishis like Patanjali and Kapila were true and accurate.

Story: Frog in the Well (Parable of Swami Vivekānanda) A frog lived all his life in a well and fattened on the worms and insects that were present in abundance in that well. He had never stepped out of the well. One day, there was a severe flood in the land surrounding the well. In that flood, another frog got washed out of the ocean and fell into the well. The well-frog asked of his visitor as to where he had come from. The ocean frog said, “Well, I am from the ocean.”

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“What is the ocean like? Is it as big as my well?” asked the well frog. The ocean frog laughed and replied, “The size of your well is nothing as compared to my ocean. Millions of your wells cannot fill my ocean. It is just endless in expanse.” The well frog responded in anger and disbelief, “You are a big liar! There is nothing as large as my well.” The ocean frog said, “You do not believe because you have never stepped outside of your well. Why don’t you follow me and see for yourself?”

But the well frog refused and said, “Why should I follow you? You are just a liar because there cannot be any water body that is as big as my well. Now, don’t waste my time and get out of my well.” The ocean frog realized that the well frog was close-minded and ignorant and had no desire to explore things outside of his own little well in which he had lived in his comfort all his life. Therefore, he just jumped out of the well once the flood-waters subsided, and left the well frog to live back there in his own comfortable ignorance.

Notes & References

  1. Viṣṇu Smṛti 31.1-2
  2. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 4.4.3
  3. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 4.9.3
  4. Chāndogya Upaniṣad 4.14.1
  5. Brahmanda Purāņa 1.2.32.31
  6. Brahmanda Purāņa 1.2.32.32
  7. Atharvaveda 11.5.3
  8. Manusmṛti 12.83
  9. Śvetashvatara Upaniṣad 6.23
  10. Śrimad-Bhagavata Purāņa 11.20.17
  11. He lived in 15th cent. BCE.
  12. They are totaling to half a million verses.
  13. It lies to its east.
  14. Taittiriya Upaniṣad 1.11
  15. He lived in 1868 – 1929.
  16. Butani. D H. 1986. The Incredible Bhagat Wadhuram, Saint of Sind. Promilla & Co. Publishers (New Delhi), Pp. 9-10
  17. It is now in Pakistan.
  18. He lived in 7th-8th cent. C.E.
  19. It is the study of the structure of organs, bones inside the body.
  20. It is a branch of Yoga that focuses on breathing and physical exercises.